A Lesson for Grantmakers in Spielberg’s New Movie “Lincoln”

posted on: December 12, 2012

By Sean Dobson

Deservedly a smash hit with critics and public alike, Steven Spielberg’s new movie Lincoln” entertains while providing illuminating lessons about American history (and, by extension, the American present).

But for me, the movie’s deepest lesson was so subtly portrayed that I wonder if Spielberg even intended to impart it. None of the reviews I read (or opinions expressed by my friends) about the movie picked up on it. Yet, this lesson permeates the entire film and functions, as it were, like an elephant in the room– or should I say, in the movie theater.

The lesson is this: in America enacting into law any big progressive reform – no matter how obvious its merits – is always a herculean task. “Lincoln” portrays the legislative battle in the House of Representatives to pass the slavery-ending 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

It is hard to imagine a bigger no-brainer than the vote on the 13th Amendment. After all, the year was 1865. What, pray tell, was happening in 1865?  Well, for starters, it had been decades since every other advanced country had abolished slavery. But as we all know, Americans are famously unimpressed by foreign examples (what other country except ours could concoct such a know-nothing absurdity as “American Exceptionalism”).

So let’s look at the year 1865 from a purely domestic standpoint. It was the fourth gruesome year of the bloodiest war in U.S. history, which had inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Union and which everybody knew was about slavery. Everybody also knew the Union was only a few months away from victory over a battered Confederacy. Moreover, in 1865 there were no southern Members of Congress at all (just a handful from border states). Finally, slavery had already de facto been abolished two years earlier thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 – the 13th Amendment would have merely formalized the abolition. In short, it seems inconceivable that a vote on the 13th Amendment in 1865 could possibly be close. For if the Amendment did not pass and slavery remained legal, what was the point of fighting the war? To let the southern states back into the Union with slavery intact? It would be hard to imagine a bigger insult to the memory of the hundreds of thousands fallen Union soldiers. Granted, a constitutional amendment requires a 2/3 majority in Congress to pass. But if ever there was a no-brainer vote that should pass unanimously, this was it.

And yet the Amendment passed by only two votes. The movie is essentially a detailed portrayal of how Lincoln and his aides furiously lobbied the House, buttonholing and cajoling (and bribing) the dozens of undecided Yankee congressmen who as late as 1865 still could not make up their minds if America should finally abolish slavery.

The 13th Amendment is but one example of how difficult it is in this country to enact big progressive reforms, no matter how obvious their merits. How many decades did women agitate before they finally won the right to vote? How many decades after the rest of the advanced world had instituted old-age insurance before we Americans finally enacted Social Security? How many decades did it take us to abolish Jim Crow? How late were we Americans to finally enact government-guaranteed health care for all?

Why is it so hard to enact commonsense, progressive reforms in this country? First, the framers created “checks and balances” they knew would hamstring government from taking action of any kind, especially egalitarian action – both within the federal government via separation of powers, and by dispersing authority across federal and state governments. This type of minimalist government suited the framers who, as wealthy (mostly slave-owning) landowners, did not need an activist government’s largesse, in fact feared government’s potential redistributionary power, and opposed governmental investments in public infrastructure that might promote industrialization, such as roads, canals, ports, etc.

Second, white Americans, regardless of income level, have always been noticeably more conservative than citizens of other advanced countries. As long as whites form a majority of American voters, it retards government’s reformist capabilities. An overrated book of recent years is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which propounds the ridiculous notion that heartland whites were in the past “progressive” but in recent years have been seduced by the Right to vote against their own economic interests. Memo to Frank:  whites in Kansas have always been conservative – when was the last time they voted for any party except the GOP? Nationwide, a clear majority of whites, regardless of income level, vote for a GOP that seeks to dismantle the very government programs that benefit them: Medicare, Social Security, Pell Grants, Obamacare, etc.

So the bad news is that enacting progressive reform in this country is amazingly difficult. The good news is that we Americans usually, eventually, after decades and decades of agonizing delay and obfuscation, finally … finally enact the reforms that Canada, France, Australia, etc. enacted decades earlier. As Winston Churchill famously observed, “The Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all over possibilities.”

So what does all this have to do with grantmakers? Many, if not most, foundations work on issues – education, health care, environment – that cry out for systemic solutions that only government can provide. But as Spielberg’s “Lincoln” shows once again, enacting systemic solutions into law is very difficult in this country. That of course does not mean grantmakers should shy away from the challenge. In fact, if they are serious about achieving their missions, recognition of the challenge should prompt them to fight harder than ever for systemic solutions. What kind of grantmaking accomplishes that?

  • Invest in those who most need the help. The most pressing systemic challenges facing our country usually disproportionately affect our most underserved communities. I am pleased to report that new research by NCRP shows that the annual share of foundation dollars explicitly benefitting underserved communities increased from 33 percent during the 2004-2006 period up to 40 percent during the 2008-2010 period.
  • Invest in systemic change, not band aids. If the goal is systemic change, advocacy is usually a better philanthropic investment than service provision. Here is more good news for grantmakers: another recent NCRP report finds that the share of grant dollars devoted to social justice advocacy and empowerment strategies (as opposed to charitable service provision) increased from 12 percent in the period 2004-2006 up to 15 percent in 2008-2010.
  • Invest for the long haul. Investment capital needs to be patient in the form of general operating support and multi-year grants because big reforms take years, if not decades, to win, and can’t be won without the nonstop advocacy of strong, durable nonprofit organizations. Unfortunately, NCRP’s latest research finds that in recent years the percentage of grant dollars for general operating support has remained stuck at only 16 percent and that for multi-year support has actually declined.

We grantmakers can’t pretend to be Abe Lincoln. But hopefully we can learn from his courage in not shying away from the big challenges of our own era and seeking systemic solutions to them.

Sean Dobson is field director at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP).